The Left Hand of the Humanities

So begins this exercise in self-production. As an anthropologist teaching in the humanities, I have now taught more iterations of Great Books courses than Intro to Anthro. I love these courses, in which I can indulge my love of novels and reading classics. In which I can ask students to contemplate The Big Questions, to which I have no answers. These conversations are intimate, sometimes silly, and always a puzzle. 

Though I teach something called "Western Heritage," I am constitutionally opposed to the reproduction of the myth of The West as a culturally contiguous, intellectual inheritance. Yet, given the linear nature of a 15-week syllabus, and the required curriculum of this first-year course, I am participating in precisely that. We read Homer, Plato, Descartes, Shakespeare; these luminous supernumeraries in the School at Athens frozen in perpetual dialogue, as if the whole of a hemisphere's intellectual culture lies in the space between their open mouths and gesturing hands. I resist reproduction by calling into question the qualities of membership in this collective, drawing in, to the best of my ability, the voices calling from the wings (This year Sappho, Austen, Atwood, Hughes), and presenting the curriculum not as content but as conversation. In my class, the "West" we inherit is a series of unanswered questions, and the authors who have tackled them. Our inheritance is a nod in our direction, a gesture inviting us into the conversation, the pause of breath before we offer our piece. 

What I offer as an anthropologist, I hope, is to draw my students back into their bodies, remind them of their own humanity. "What does it feel like to doubt your own existence?" I ask about Descartes' Discourse on Method. "Who has not felt this?" of Rousseau's Sociable man, who "derives the sentiment of his own existence solely from the judgment of others." When something seems alien to them, like Achilles' divine rage, or Anne Eliot's unspoken passion, I ask them to inhabit this moment, find the logic, make it make sense. If the art of anthropology is to make commensurable the lives of others, that is what I bring to my class. No question is esoteric which deals with the (or a) human experience. 

Nonetheless, I experience my role in the Humanities as an outsider, a social scientist in a world of literature and poetry. I bring my own questions to bear on the conversation. Hence the title of this blog, paraphrased from Ursula Le Guin's novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. In it an anthropologist explores a distant ice planet, where there is no gender and the logic of human relationships is shaped by different matters. The challenge for Le Guin's protagonist is to understand life expressed in different metaphors, and to see the limitations of his own epistemological constructs. I set the same challenge here: to examine the world I am reproducing through my teaching, to see where the metaphors of a Western mythos penetrate my research, and to embark on an anthropological examination of life in the Humanities.